Return to campus in England delayed until at least 8 March

Latest advice to universities does not acknowledge that many students are still living at term-time addresses

University teaching should remain online in England until at least 8 March for all but a few students.

The rule comes from the latest advice published by the Department for Education. Students in Scotland learned in January that campuses would remain closed to most students until early March. Earlier this week, students in Wales learned that restrictions on face-to-face teaching at campuses would continue until after the Easter vacation.

Previous guidance for England, announced after the Christmas holidays, had suggested a staggered return to campus would be possible from the end of January. However, increased transmission rates and the emergence of other, potentially more infectious, variants of coronavirus in January have made a prompt return to in-campus living unlikely.

Students on a few courses, namely medicine and dentistry; subjects allied to medicine and health; veterinary science; education (initial teacher training); social studies; and policing, may return to campus for vital in-person teaching and learning needed to secure the “pipeline of future key workers”.

Evidence suggests many students have not heeded DfE guidance.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics, released last week, covering the period up to 18 January, show many students have returned to their term-time accommodation despite travelling home for Christmas. According to the data, 33% of students left university premises over the Christmas period, 37% stayed in their accommodation, and 30% were already living off-campus at their family home or non-term time accommodation. Of those that travelled over the winter break, 40% have returned to their term-time accommodation, and 60% have not.

Sources at two large universities in England told University Business that around 50% of students were living in university accommodation this January.

The DfE said it would “work with providers to put in place asymptomatic testing arrangements for all students on return to/arrival at university, and for those students who have stayed on campus over the winter break”. Students on campus should receive and accept tests with two lateral flow devices (LFD) per week – and all returning students should receive two negative results from LFDs before integrating into the university community. In a temporary change to rules, positive LFD results no longer need to be verified by a PCR test, the advice states.

More recent government advice states: “Evaluations of mass testing using one brand of lateral flow test in asymptomatic people show that there is a very low chance that somebody without an infection would be incorrectly given a positive result.

“[LFD] can also detect some infected people who would not otherwise have been identified. The current view of their sensitivity is likely to be between 40–76%, meaning that up to half of infected people may be missed.”

The advice states that LFDs are more reliable if tests are “repeated and targeted effectively”, especially in groups and settings where infections are prevalent.

The planned roll-out of lateral flow tests in schools in England was paused on 20 January, however, because of concerns about the risk of missing cases caused by the new and more transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variant.

University Business has asked the DfE for guidance on the future use of LFD tests in HE settings.

Read more: Keep learning online for the rest of this academic year, say UCU

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